*This article first appeared in Ride UK (#78) and is reproduced here by kind permission of Ride UK.
Nobody really likes public transport. We would all rather drive ourselves to our destination. Door to door with our own timetable and agenda. Unfortunately there is a flip side to this. I am not talking about congested roads or the coming apocalypse of global warming. No. Simply that nobody likes public transport and public transport doesn’t like us…. If you don’t believe me go down to the railway station and ask for a ticket to say London. You may at first think that the guy at the counter is trying to guess your mobile phone number but no, that really is the price he expects you to pay! Now turn to him and tell him you want to take a bicycle with you. He may openly laugh in your face so brace yourself and don’t say I didn’t warn you.
To you this seems illogical. Even if you weren’t an obsessive BMX’er who is probably only travelling to ride your bike, the chances are the place you want to visit isn’t actually Euston station so you need some transport on at the other end anyway. Bikes and trains SHOULD work well together but the train companies don’t want a bar of it…
Before I got my own car I spent many an afternoon arguing with British Rail guards to get my bike on to trains, I also spent a while on platforms waiting for a train that wasn’t too futuristic to let a bike on, or simply giving up and riding instead. Many’s the tale I have heard of half a dozen riders trying to get back from say Nottingham to Barnsley and in the end setting off riding roughly northwards the 40 miles home.
So now I have a nice big car and the railways can go fuck themselves (which is one thing they do seem to be very adept at). But sadly my car can’t cope with large bodies of water like the Atlantic ocean. Trust me, I have checked through the manual and although it does have such essentials as heated wing mirrors and a turbo pressure gauge it doesn’t have a retractable hover skirt or hydroplanes.
So for overseas trips you are pretty much at the mercy of the airlines, and they too have quaint little rules and regulations to follow. The first of these is that if you want to take a bike they are most likely going to want some more money off you. No matter that fat bastards the size of Mongolia can book a single seat at the same price as less cumbersome passengers and that babies under 2 travel free despite making the flight a living hell for everyone within earshot. If you want to stash a little bicycle in the hold they want another random amount of money off you. They will also probably keep this fairly quiet until you come to check-in. So this months technical column is a how-to on getting your bike from A to B without getting stung.
As with any successful military campaign, preparation is everything, though the element of surprise is less important… (Whipping your bike out of your arse at the last minute is more likely to get you shot these days than help dodge an excess baggage fee… so maybe scratch that bit about military tactics…)
Many airlines WILL let you take a bike for free on international flights, but you don’t know which ones until you check, and you probably don’t know which is going to be cheapest until you come to book. So you are left with a dilema. You can either tell the travel agent that you are taking a bike and have her (let’s face it it’s nearly always a girl) check and pre-book for you or you can keep quiet and try to blag it later on.
My recommendation is to play it cool and say something like you MIGHT want to take a bike with you and if so would it be a problem. Being a travel agent they may just make it up on the spot so double check later. Most airlines should say on their websites what the policy is and if it says it’s free then print it out so you can brandish it later on if you have problems.
Having said all this the best bet is for you to pack your bike so well that they will never know it’s there. Specialist bike bags are available with padding in all the right places but they aren’t cheap and they might give the game away by having “Bike Bag” written on the side in big letters. Another alternative that is rumoured to be good is a keyboard case but this and the bike bag can be very unwieldy and if you need to connect by tube or walk far with it then you are in for an epic struggle.
My own bike bag was something I made in advance for a difficult journey I knew was coming. I had to get a bus to the bus depot, then a coach to London Victoria coach station, then walk to the tube and take it to docklands, then another bus to London City airport. The prospect of packing a bike well enough for the coach (let alone the plane) and then manhandling it across London was enough to make me take the problem seriously and make this thing.
In essence it is a plank with skateboard trucks bolted to the bottom, and two blocks of wood to bolt the dropouts to so it stays solid. This plank is stapled into the bottom of a big bag and that’s about it.
You take your wheels off the bike, bolt the dropouts to the wood with some old bolts, zip tie all the bits ,like wheel and bars, to the frame and zip it up.